eye open·er (ˈī-ˌōp-nər, -ˌō-pə-) n. 1. something that causes the eyes to open in astonishment or realization, as a piece of news, discovery, etc. 2. [Slang] an alcoholic drink, especially one taken early in the day.
Beyoncé & Who Run(s) The World
Although I’ve always loved Beyoncé as an artist, more recently I have come to deeply appreciate her and love the way she makes me consider questions about aesthetics and pop culture, about myself and the world I live in and move through. Part of this has come from examining and analyzing her videos. I brought “Countdown” into my freshman composition class so we could look at the video’s aesthetics—choreography, costumes, styling, settings—and how they was greatly influenced by others and in parts taken wholecloth from Belgian Choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. In doing so, we talked about the context of her as a pop diva, about the history of music videos (hers and others), about issues of ethics and recycling vs. plagiarizing. A few weeks ago, my friend Meg introduced me to her song and video “Who Run The World (Girls).”
On a first watch, I was taken by the choreography, strong and dynamic, by Beyoncé’s holding the leashes of hyenas in a desert, by her hair taking on a light shade of blonde and the sometimes “whitening” of her that happens either with or without her permission. Meg told me how Beyoncé had seen videos of the two men from Mozambican kwaito dance group Tofo Tofo who choreographed part of the video and dance alongside her. She told her people she had to work with them. The body movements and the drumbeats are instantly recognizable as stemming from African dance. They are powerful, they showcase the fluid and sharp movement of bodies to strong rhythms. I showed “Who Run the World” to another friend Amanda, and she was struck by the end of the video, when, after a song about girls ruling the world, Beyoncé leads her army of women—clad in bright flowing dresses, combat boots and garter belts—up to uniformed riot policemen and leads her army in a salute to them. “Whoa, that is something,” she said, and went on to talk about that moment as a sort of insight into these women as powerful not only in the way they execute force but in how they choose to vocalize or not vocalize, how they choose to be assertive and how they choose to, at least seemingly, submit.
For me, this video is a striking commentary about women as powerful beings. About how women are sources of both sensuality and real power and the proposal that these don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Women use their wiles not just as manipulation of power but because this sensuality—in their bodies, their souls, their nature—is a part of who they are at their foundation.
This is in strong contrast to other representations of how women are portrayed as using their sexuality and sensuality. Oftentimes, women in film and media are shown using their sensuality as a form of trickery or a last ditch effort to save them. (These examples also often do an injustice to straight men, portraying them as oversimplified beings, oversexed dolts who can’t tell their wristwatch from their crotch.) If she is in a bind, a Charlie’s Angel could strut out in a bikini to distract a villain. Or Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone in the Aerosmith video “Crazy” can make eyes at the convenience store clerk to shoplift as much loot as they want. Or maybe when about to be raped by a man, a woman will use her sensuality to convince him she has changed her mind to buy a few seconds until she can grab the glass vase from the shelf and break it over his head. In these examples, a woman’s sensuality is a source of power but also a source of shame and guilt because she is using it in situations that allow her (and it) to be demeaned by others; her sexuality is the only thing she can use to help her because her smarts, her skills, her knowledge are nonexistent or not enough. She is objectified: her sensuality is reduced to being her only power instead of a deeply rooted part of who she is as a whole being—and that whole being, her real source of power.
This is not true in “Who Rule The World.” One of my favorite moments of brilliance in the video begins at time marker 2:20. In a close-up of Beyoncé, she sings the words “You will do anything for me” as she makes seductive facial expressions, looking away from the camera. Then, as she sings “Who Rule the World?”, she looks directly into the camera with soft eyes and smiles sweetly, a sort of “cover of Cosmopolitan” smile. But immediately after, she scrunches her face into a strong, aggressive expression and shouts: “Girls!” For me, it’s not about Beyoncé being coy and taking advantage of her unsuspecting male viewer. It’s about her knowing that her power rests in both her sweetness expressed in the question and in the strength and power delivered in the answer.
In the video, the women dancers wear military jackets strung over bras. They wear official army caps with metal stars. Later, some of them, including Beyoncé, wear brightly-colored flowing dresses with long slits up the sides; others don camisoles, underwear and long flowing capes. The dancers wear garters and stockings and black combat boots. At moments their underwear shows, but instead of this being a kind of seduction, it is a kind of powerful revealing. Because of the capes and slits in the dresses, the viewers can see the strength and power of these women’s bodies, and through them, the strength and power of women’s bodies in general. And in showcasing the strength of their hips and thighs, in both the costuming and the choreography, we remember that there has been, since forever really, a masculining of what power looks like: in human bodies and in the world. It looks like war. It looks like dominance. It looks like carved pecks and abdomens. It looks like giant sculpted Popeye arms. This video is saying: power looks like the line of muscle definition in a woman’s thighs, it looks like the delicate swoop of an arched back, it looks like the ability to dance with both subtle and sharp movement, hip sways and shoulder snaps. It is beautiful and it is strong.
As a woman raised in the South to understand that women are supposed to look and behave a certain way, I have not always been able to connect with or honor all that I am as a woman: my sensitivity and my power (and the power that comes from my sensitivity), my soft curves and my strong legs (and the strength that comes from having both soft and sturdy parts of my body). And it is really refreshing to have a perspective that is not an either/or, that does not ask me to sacrifice one for the other. Because fuck that. I don’t have to and I don’t want to. And not in some sort of I am Woman, Hear me Roar way. More that I am woman and I can roar if I want to. I can also whisper. I can dance and I can run. I can compromise and I can be unyielding. More that I am a woman and all that this encompasses. And that to be a woman, to be me, is to be beautiful and valuable and strong. I run this mother—